BWW Review: THE SLAVES OF SOLITUDE, Hampstead Theatre
We're back in the world of ration books, blackouts and spam fritters, as Nicholas Wright delves into the home front via his adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's 1947 novel. Though there's a certain period chintz about Jonathan Kent's production, darker undercurrents make this a more complex proposition than it first appears.
It's 1943, and Miss Roach, a 39-year-old reader for a publishing company, is stuck in a dusty Henley boarding house after her London flat was bombed. Her fellow residents, all much older, include the prejudiced bully Thwaites. But her monotonous suffering (which the play could do more to establish as the norm) is disrupted by the arrival of flirtatious African-American serviceman Lieutenant Pike and German emigree Vicki Kugelmann.
The latter becomes a nightmarish creature for Miss Roach, embodying everything that she's not: gregarious, sensual, curvaceous, and thoroughly extroverted. Pike, meanwhile, teases an escapist romance that Miss Roach can never quite trust; love, she states, "ought to be real".
Wright's adaptation emphasises the strange contradictions of this wartime experience: deprivation, loss and the stifling conservatism of the boarding house versus the era's liberating permissiveness. Likewise Miss Roach is both infantilised and also treated as one of the elderly spinsters; here, then, is a moment to prove that her life isn't over yet. But the play complicates that familiar idea of war empowering people to take risks.
As played with aching poignancy by Fenella Woolgar, Miss Roach is all vulnerable points, flinching at the jibes from her constant tormentor Thwaites, the "banter" of her more outgoing friends, the constant intrusive interest of fellow residents. Yet she's unable - by natural personality and by learned reserve - to fully express herself, whether hope and longing or frustration.
A quietly gripping sequence sees her retreat into a corner of the dining room as Pike, Vicki and Thwaites raucously overindulge. A side lamp acts like a spotlight, drawing us to this introverted woman's internal horror, as emotions flash across Woolgar's face.
The production operates best as a mood piece. In places, the necessity of truncating dialogue for adaptation reads as choppy and expository, and a histrionic opening is particularly jarring. Wright has attempted to up the drama, but artificially, rather than allowing the stakes to emerge from further character work; oddly, it makes the play as a whole feel more meandering.
Better are the detailed moments that communicate the pervasiveness of war, whether Miss Roach shrinking from a full moon or "bombers' moon", which gave German planes a clearer path to London, or a haunting scene in which she encounters a former pupil (the excellent Tom Milligan) - now 17, and eager to go off and fight.
There are good supporting turns from Richard Tate as the mysterious Mr Prest, seeking refuge in showbiz; Clive Francis as the loathsome, English language-torturing Thwaites; Gwen Taylor as a distinct set of twins; Lucy Cohu illustrating the desperate calculation of Vicki's glamour; and Daon Broni as Pike, whose boozy charm is actually symptomatic of something more serious.
Tim Hatley's boarding house is a feast of claustrophobic prints, with small tables crowded together: homely, but not a home; somewhere you're never alone, but can certainly be lonely. Set changes are punctuated by a screen whisking across in front - effective, although one of the flats encountered issues on press night.
If not quite making the case for the story in this new medium, it's still an evocative piece, anchored by an affecting central performance from Woolgar, who finds desolation and ultimately strength in Miss Roach's distinctly British isolation.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan